The Strangely Rabbinic Story of Zhu Xi

Rabbi Scott Perlo
December 23, 2013
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Dear Reader,

Herein lies the strangely Rabbinic tale of Zhu Xi, revered commentator of the Analects of Confucius.

I was teaching our introductory students about parshanut (Rabbinic commentary), which is a singularly difficult task. One spends a lot of time explaining, in rather uncertain terms, just why taking every word out of context is the holy work of a canonical interpretation.

In order to illustrate, I mentioned that the teachers recorded in the Midrash would have had a different text of the Tanakh than we do. The Masoretes didn’t vocalize and point the biblical text until the second half of the first millennium, C.E, so the Bible of the baalei Midrash was not punctuated.

Anyways, we were talking about how much more fluid a text and its meanings become when there is no punctuation, when the student next to me said, “Right, just like The Analects.”

“What?” I said.

“You know, Confucius,” he said. “The Chinese text has no punctuation either, so there are authoritative commentaries explaining how to read him.”

“Really?” I said. I had thought that particular brand of insanity was unique to us.

“Yes, yes. Like Zhu Xi.”

Zhu Xi was born in 1130 in Fujian, during the Song dynasty. His contentious career began and ended with civil service, though he spent 25 years refusing public posts because of his dissatisfaction with the corruption and ineptitude of the government of his time. Towards the end of his life, he became the Prefect of the Nankang Military District – a position from which he was demoted after accusing some rather powerful people of corruption. Zhu Xi died in disgrace.

But while he was alive, Zhu wrote commentaries to the “Four Books” of Confucianism. These commentaries received little attention during his lifetime. Most Confucian scholars of his time concentrated their attention on the I Ching. Zhu’s emphasis on these books was considered highly unorthodox.

After he died things changed. By 1241 – 40 years after his death – a tablet bearing his name was placed in the Confucian Temple, making Zhu Xi the Confucian equivalent of a saint. To this day, Zhu is one of the “Twelve Philosphers” of Confucianism, and the only one not to be a direct disciple of Confucius himself.

Here’s the rub (and the Rabbinic parallel) – in the 14th century, the Chinese government officially endorsed Zhu Xi’s commentary, and until 1905 it was read and memorized alongside the Analects by all Chinese seeking civil service. This is to say that, for Confucians as well as Jews, all reading is truly rereading.

The mitzvah of studying weekly parsha is shnayim mikra ve’ehad targum – twice through the original Torah text and once through a commentary each week. The first printed Jewish book was Rashi’s commentary to the Torah – not the Torah itself. We, as Jews, do not just read; we reread. For us, study is not the original text, but the immediate understanding of how that text is read by others. We always see our texts through many eyes. And in this small but critically important way, we claim kinship with those who have been looking through the Confucian eyes of Zhu Xi for the better part of a millennium.

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Rabbi Scott Perlo Scott Perlo left the waves of his beloved Pacific Ocean to be the Associate Director of Jewish Programming at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. His job is extremely cool, and he spends his days reaching out to the young professional Jews and the “Jewish adjacent” population of Washington D.C . Scott was the first rabbi of the Professional Leaders Project and Moishe House, a founder of the Ma'or Beit Midrash and CreateHavdallah, rabbi of Adat Shalom in West L.A., and rabbinic intern at IKAR and Beit Warszawa in Warsaw, Poland. He received his undergraduate degree from University of Pennsylvania and his ordination from the Ziegler School at the American Jewish University in 2008. Scott writes regularly for the Huffington Post, Sixth and I’s blog, Kosher Salt, and has been published in the Washington Post.

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